SOMERSET, Pa. -- Former Sen. Rick Santorum opened his bid for the White House here denouncing federal health care reform as a power grab designed to create dependency and erode freedom.
Tanned and smiling, Mr. Santorum walked to an outside podium under the portico of the Somerset County Courthouse carrying his 3-year-old daughter, Isabella, and followed by his wife, Karen, and the rest of their seven children. Before the 2006 loss that ended his Senate career, the Republican wrote a book, "It Takes a Family," and family was one of the themes of the 25-minute speech that officially launched his long shot quest for the GOP nomination.
The Republican said he chose the spot for his debut because it was near the town where his grandfather, Pietro Santorum, worked as a coal miner after immigrating from Italy on the eve of the Great Depression.
Mr. Santorum told a crowd of a several hundred that crowded the courthouse plaza that his grandfather left a good job in his home country because he sought the freedom of the United States.
In his characteristically combative remarks, Mr. Santorum depicted that freedom as under assault from an administration bent on subjugating individuals to the dictates of big government.
Referring to the Obama administration's health care law, he said, "Why do you think they ignored the polls and jammed it down the throats of the American public?"
"One word . . . power," he said. "They want to hook you."
The two-term senator also attacked the administration's economic record, while blaming the president for the expansionary policies of the Federal Reserve.
"He's devalued our dollars and now he's devalued our other currency, our moral currency," Mr. Santorum contended.
As he has in previous speeches, Mr. Santorum criticized a somewhat misstated version of remarks President Barack Obama made earlier this spring in responding to the budget proposals of Rep. Paul Ryan, the influential chairman of the House budget committee.
In the speech at George Washington University, Mr. Obama, referring to Social Security, Medicare and other safety net programs, said, "We're a better country because of these commitments. I'll go further. We would not be a great country without those commitments."
In contending that Mr. Obama does not understand the fundamental nature of the country, Mr. Santorum quoted the president as having said that, "America was not a great country until those programs."
At that point in his speech, a woman standing just in front of him fainted in the midday heat. Karen Santorum, a nurse as well as a lawyer, was among those who rushed to her assistance. Mr. Santorum asked the crowd to offer a silent prayer for her, and his aides reported later that she had recovered once she got into the shade of the courthouse.
Mr. Santorum also noted that the spot where he was addressing the crowd was only a few miles from Shanksville, the site of the crash of
Flight 93 amid the 9/11 terrorist attacks. On that plane, he said,
average Americans had fought for freedom. He also found inspiration in the date, June 6, the anniversary of D-Day, the allied invasion of Europe in World War II. The average Americans who stormed those beaches, he said, were defending freedom, including the freedom not to be bound by government health care edicts.
Mr. Santorum made his speech after a morning round of television and radio interviews and then headed to Iowa, home of the first caucuses and a conservative voting base crucial to Mr. Santorum's plan of igniting his presidential run five years after a landslide loss to Sen. Bob Casey ended his Senate career.
Mr. Santorum's poll numbers have been less than impressive so far, but he has won upsets in the past, notably his first two congressional races in the Pittsburgh suburbs when he defeated Democratic candidates in a heavily Democratic district. Part of the slogan emblazoned on banners around the courthouse -- "Join the Fight" -- came from that second House race, when he scored an upset in defending a House district that had been redrawn to make it heavily Democratic.
And while he has yet to break through in state or national polling, Mr. Santorum has managed to win or score strongly in several local straw polls in the early voting states. Mr. Santorum is an established voice on socially conservative issues such as abortion and opposition to gay marriage. In his last Senate campaign and in the years since, he has also been outspoken about what he warns is the threat to the U.S. posed by radical Islamic jihadism.
So far, the GOP presidential field officially includes former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, businessman and talk show host Herman Cain, former New Mexico Gov.
Gary Johnson, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Republicans are also watching for the decisions of a list of potential candidates led by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and including former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.